Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Hate-Based Algorithmic Advertising

Julia Angwin, Madeleine Varner and Ariana Tobin, ProPublica:

Until this week, when we asked Facebook about it, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

To test if these ad categories were real, we paid $30 to target those groups with three “promoted posts” — in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook approved all three ads within 15 minutes.

Will Oremus and Bill Carey, Slate:

Contacted about the anti-Semitic ad categories by ProPublica, Facebook removed them, explaining that they had been generated algorithmically. The company added that it would explore ways to prevent similarly offensive ad targeting categories from appearing in the future.

Yet when Slate tried something similar Thursday, our ad targeting “Kill Muslimic Radicals,” “Ku-Klux-Klan,” and more than a dozen other plainly hateful groups was similarly approved. In our case, it took Facebook’s system just one minute to give the green light.

Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:

Google, the world’s biggest advertising platform, allows advertisers to specifically target ads to people typing racist and bigoted terms into its search bar, BuzzFeed News has discovered. Not only that, Google will suggest additional racist and bigoted terms once you type some into its ad-buying tool.

Type “White people ruin,” as a potential advertising keyword into Google’s ad platform, and Google will suggest you run ads next to searches including “black people ruin neighborhoods.” Type “Why do Jews ruin everything,” and Google will suggest you run ads next to searches including “the evil jew” and “jewish control of banks.”

After ProPublica’s report, Facebook announced that they would stop showing self-reported affiliations to advertisers, while Google said that they removed the terms Kantrowitz found. And, to be fair, the audience sizes reported for many of these terms are small, so Facebook and Google may prevent those ads from running.

Still, this is nowhere near good enough. Any company that sells advertising to a specific audience ought to be held accountable for it. Both Facebook and Google prohibit using their ad platforms to promote discrimination and hate, but I don’t think they can simply wash their hands of responsibility when someone uses their advertising tools for evil. I’m not necessarily arguing for regulations — though I would not necessarily object, either — but I do think both companies should be more aware of how their advertising programs are really being used, and do more to prevent misuse. Their staff wrote the algorithms that enable this, and ad revenue represents the vast majority of each company’s income. They are responsible.

Update: Brian Patrick Byrne of the Daily Beast found that Twitter’s ad suggestions also allowed advertisers to target campaigns at users who use racist and disparaging terms.